On 9 December, thousands of people gathered to confront the far right’s ‘Brexit Betrayal’ demo in London.
The anti-fascist demonstration last weekend brought thousands of people onto the streets of London to oppose the far right. Last time round, on 13 October, we were only confronting the DFLA – that day was a clear win for anti-fascists and left the DFLA despondent. By contrast, the “Brexit Betrayal” demo on 9 December called by Tommy Robinson and UKIP was always going to be better-funded with a much larger online reach. Internal divisions were clear: in the run-up to the day of the protest, Nigel Farage, Suzanne Evans and Paul Nuttall all resigned after Gerard Batten (UKIP’s current leader) appointed Tommy Robinson as his adviser on “grooming gangs” and prisons. Most estimates of their turnout put it in the low thousands. UKIP’s old network seems to be falling apart while the party lurches further to the right, seeking to profit from the fallout from the Brexit process.
The anti-fascist coalition that organised to counter the far-right demonstration built on the connections made over recent months. It included the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly, Momentum and a range of campaign groups, independent trade unions and NGOs. Momentum and sections of the Labour Party used to gravitate towards Stand Up to Racism (SUtR) demos, so their decision to take part in a demo with more militant ambitions is a step forwards for anti-fascist organising. Momentum’s social media raised the profile of the demo and John McDonnell also gave it his endorsement, and CLPs and Labour/Momentum campaigns were out in force on the ground.
Despite the fact that Another Europe is Possible (AEIP) organised with the coalition and even created a separate event page with messaging that explicitly centred on a pro-Remain message, the demo was clearly not “anti-Brexit” as has generally been reported in the media. The uniting themes of the placards, chants and banners were opposition to borders, to racism and to the far right. There was the odd EU flag, but the antidote was there too: “Leave or Remain: We ALL hate Tommy,” proclaimed several Labour Party placards.
Stand Up to Racism decided to move their starting point from Downing Street to Portland Place where the coalition was meeting, despite having been asked to keep separate for collective strategic reasons. What looked on the surface like “unity” actually raised some serious difficulties. Even though the organisations in the coalition had agreed that the Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly should lead the demo, SUtR stewards took the front in an attempt to dominate and were aggressive towards coalition stewards. SUtR’s tactics played into the hands of the police – the demo was easier for them to control than it might otherwise have been. Combined with the fact that the police put the far right demonstration on a much more difficult route for the counter-demo to reach than last time, the kind of militancy that was possible on 13 October (when the DFLA were blocked by anti-fascists) was out of reach.
When the demo reached Trafalgar Square, most of it went down Whitehall (as had been agreed with the police) where SUtR had set up a stage for speeches. A section of the coalition demo broke away just before Trafalgar Square to avoid being funnelled into Whitehall (which is usually a tactical dead end), with the aim of leaving to disperse safely further away. At this point, the police blocked protesters to prevent them from leaving and attacked them, kicking them to the ground, whacking them with their batons and yelling threats to send in the horses. The first aid group Queercare dealt with a broken arm on the scene. Small bands of DFLA thugs were also hanging around in Trafalgar Square and tried to attack groups of protesters but were seen off by the crowd. The group that had separated off was eventually able to reform and then joined the contingent in Whitehall, as there had been reports of the far right attacking protesters there too.
The coalition that pulled together the anti-fascist demo succeeded in drawing thousands of people onto the streets. Strategy on the ground is always difficult in central London, but even though we couldn’t block the far right under all the constraints that emerged, our numbers are getting higher and higher every time.
Read rs21’s leaflet from the demo: No to Fortress Britain – No to Fortress Europe